Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong

Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong
(Robert R. Reilly, February 9, 2016)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Robert R. Reilly spoke to the Military History Legion at The University Club on February 9. Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006).

He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade.

Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad. In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as both national director and then president.

He was on active duty as an armored cavalry officer for two years, and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the “war of ideas”, and classical music.

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:

The Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)

Information Operations: Successes and Failures (September 6, 2013)

Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)

The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)



Bob Reilly is the Director of the Westminster Institute. He’s written for the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — we won’t hold that against you — the Reader’s Digest, National Review, and many other publications. He was former director of the Voice of America. He’s taught at the National Defense University, served in the White House, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he also participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I ask you to welcome Bob Reilly.

Robert Reilly:

Jeff, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to be with you this evening. You may have seen, the lecture topic was switched. Jeff actually came to the Westminster Institute for a talk on the subject. In our email exchanges that topic stayed with the title. My talk title was in the text message, so do you know what I’m talking about tonight? If you do, tell me. I think you know, it’s ‘Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.’ But I will touch upon the subject of jihad and you may notice that this is such a disgusting subject that I will have an adult beverage with me up here while we are discussing it. It’s also kind of body language to let you know that I am not a Muslim.

Now, you may have noticed in the news that when the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran went through Italy and France, at the state dinners which he attended, no wine was served. I’ve been to France and Italy many times. I’ve never seen a meal without wine and that was done so President Rouhani’s Islamic faith would not be offended by the presence of alcoholic beverages, which brought to mind a memory of Winston Churchill when he was Prime Minister and King Saud was visiting him at 10 Downing Street.

King Saud’s emissary arrived at 10 Downing Street to go over the requirements for the dinner with Churchill and he said to the Prime Minister, for religious reasons no alcoholic beverages will be served in His Majesty’s presence, to which Churchill responded, “Champagne will be served before dinner, Bordeaux will be served with dinner, and cognac will be served after dinner also for religious reasons.” And so it was.

So now, I’d better move on and address our subject of, “Deciphering the Middle East: Why the United States Usually Gets it Wrong.” So, I think we need to pull back and consider a little history on the relationship between the United States and the Middle East and first of all, we will notice that there wasn’t much of one if one at all for the major part of the history of the United States. Why? Because the United States didn’t have any vital, strategic interests there.

The feeling was apparently mutual as no Middle Eastern country opened an embassy in Washington until the Ottomans in 1873. It was not until 1909 that the U.S. State Department created its Near Eastern Affairs division. In 1913, Assistant Secretary of State Francis Huntington Wilson announced, “It’s no place to waste ammunition.” Well, apparently some things change.

Now, the United States as is obvious from our origin, has consistently been an anti colonial power and this has given us a certain perspective on the world. So, when we began noticing the Middle East and considering our relationship to it, the first thing we noticed was it was the object of imperial powers and at the time of our first serious association with it it was subject to Ottoman imperialism.

And so the notion arose, should only the Arab peoples be given their freedom? If the shackles of Ottoman imperialism could be lifted from them, the Arabs would naturally assume the blessings of liberty and self-government. Because our perspective was if you don’t have the exercise of these rights, it’s because someone has taken it from you.

The Ottomans insisted on entering World War I. As you know, Churchill had promised them if they stayed out of it, the British Empire would guarantee the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Foolishly, they entered it. The empire collapsed at the end of the war and what took the place of Ottoman imperialism was British and French imperialism.

So the story with the United States changed a little bit. If only the Arab peoples could be free from Western, French, and British imperialism, the Arab peoples would assume upon themselves the blessings of liberty and self-government. And the United States was known as an anti-imperial power. At the conclusion of the war we pressured both the French and the British to abandon their colonial possessions. And then in 1956 in the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower cemented this reputation by opposing the Israelis, the French, and the British when they repossessed the Suez Canal after Nasser had expropriated it from them, and Eisenhower told them to get out.

So understandably, we were popular. The United States was admired. And so we thought now that the British and French imperial powers have withdrawn, the Arab peoples will take upon themselves self-government with the blessings of liberty. The British and the French, exhausted from the war and their imperial endeavors, eventually withdrew. And the United States because of the strategic interest it had there, principally, obviously, oil, had to fill in their shoes and we made an amazing discovery: that the problems in the Middle East or a good deal of them were not a product of Ottoman imperialism or Western imperialism, they were indigenous to the region. Only now they were our problems.

The United States formed its foreign policy in respect to the Middle East from Truman on because of the vital strategic asset of oil there, that we would not allow any antagonistic, hegemonic power to gain control of those supplies. This policy was reiterated. This was a bipartisan policy. It was reiterated by every president. You may recall Jimmy Carter, hardly known as a hardcore president on foreign policy, repeating this.

After the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and worries persisted that this might be a lurch toward the Middle Eastern oil resources through this long tunnel into Iran. In fact, he made the announcement, repeating this policy, saying that if any hostile power attempted to become the hegemon in the Middle East, that would be a casus belli for the United States, consistently articulated.

Now, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart, but this policy persisted in a slightly reformulated fashion. Since we were no longer worried about an antagonistic, hegemonic power from outside the Middle East, we then concentrated on any local hegemon whose ambitions would imperil the strategic interests of the United States. And so it was that when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, took it over, made several military feints into Saudi Arabia, the President George Bush Sr. created the coalition to throw Saddam out.

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